New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
$26.95, 538 pages, ISBN 0-375-41199-2.
Université de Rouen
Blackwood Farm takes one step further the gradual fusion of the "Vampire
Chronicles" series and the "Lives of the Mayfair Witches"
series that was recently observed in Merrick (2000). Venomous
critics might see this as a purely commercial move on Anne Rice's
part: although many of her readers enjoyed both series, she knew that
some had a preference; with this development, her sales could only
increase. The truth of the matter is, it works exceedingly well, and
the fans can only rejoice. I use the word "fans" quite deliberately,
since Rice, like pop stars and movie stars, is the object of a cult.
I am very tempted to use the phrase "popular fiction" when
discussing her novels, although I know she dislikes it, to the point
of addressing the issue in Blackwood Farm. "I
fanned out the books and perused their covers. They ranged from what
we so arrogantly call popular fiction to books on anthropology, sociology
and modern philosophy." [173, italics mine] But she shouldn't
see it as a charge, on the contrary. Think of all the French and English
nineteenth-century classics whose authors wrote nothing but popular
fiction, which was serialized in newspapers. Each episode was eagerly
awaited by readers the way today's TV viewers await, say, Buffy
the Vampire Slayer new episodes.
I recently reviewed (in Cercles) Anne Rice and Sexual
Politics: The Early Novels, by James R. Keller (2000). If I may
be so bold, disrespectful of basic academic rules and unthinkingly
narcissistic as to quote myself, I then stated: "Anne Rice belongs
to that particular species of American writers, popular novelists
who delight millions of indulgent fans and manage at the same time
to raise keen interest in academe. Keller writes: 'Rices choice
of subject matter reveals a negotiation between high and low culture,
between the elite and the popular, between literature and commercial
fiction.'  Many university professors would agree to say that she
cannot write to save her life, but that does not make her any less
thrilling. Some mock her for the way her English characters speak
(nobody talks like that), but her ideas are utterly fascinating.
And her characters even more so."
Well, Rice certainly still steers between high and low culture, notably
as far as her references are concerned: a bit of Ancient World here
and there, the usual helping of Italian Renaissance, a lot of paintings
generally speaking. Most of the time it works, sometimes it falls
a bit flat. Particularly so, in the case of Blackwood Farm,
when it comes to Shakespeare. Rice has always been eager to share
her enthusiasms, even in occasional letters to the press or telephone
calls to her official website, but I'm not sure we need to be told
quite so forcefully and repeatedly about her passion for Kenneth Branagh's
Shakespearean work. Dickens is also a bit intrusive in this new book,
as well as effusive pronouncements like: "She took me through
the magnificent film Immortal Beloved, in which Gary Oldman
plays Beethoven to such perfection that every time we watched it I
cried."  Although of course the title of Bernard Rose's
film could be the subtitle of Blackwood Farm, and it is, after
all, a character who thus raves.
There is still the odd English character (Talamasca oblige), but he
does not talk quite so oddly. And all things considered, it has become
a tradition: in vampire fiction the scholarly experts are always English,
and since Giles in the Buffy TV series, no one would want it any other
way. Talking about tradition, it is comforting to see that however
twenty-first-century Rice's fiction gets, it still retains most of
the elements of the good old Gothic genre of yesteryear (albeit superficially
so, as some may argue); although I'm sure many scholarly exegetes
of the said genre would wince at the thought. It also incorporates
many of the elements of good old (Southern) New American Gothic.
In my review of Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels,
by James R. Keller, I examined the way Rice addressed homosexuality.
She has considerably strengthened that streak with Blackwood Farm,
in a more open, easier manner. Having read her son Christopher Rice's
two interesting and very gay novels (A Density of Souls, 2000
and The Snow Garden, 2001), and seen his picture, I cannot
help thinking that the beautiful hero, Tarquin Blackwood, AKA Quinn,
is largely based on him. This time the book is dedicated to Christopher
Rice exclusively. There are hilarious passages when Quinn's sexual
experiences are summed up, which encompass just about every sex, every
gender (no, it is not the same thing), every age group and every species
of natural and supernatural beings. But then, even sleeping practices
are on the odd side at Blackwood Manor, with people of every age sharing
beds with servants, for instance. The euphemisms are fewer too, and
the words "hard" and "cock" recurrent. Also, and
this is more than anecdotal, the word "queer" now appears,
showing among other things that Rice reads her academic critics. Naturally,
Rice's vampire fiction has always been extremely homoerotic. For the
record, AIDS makes a entrance too, although, precisely, not in a gay
As the cover pleasantly illustrates, precious cameos play an important
part in this new novel. And characters from other Rice novels make
endearing cameo appearances, like (the ghost of) Julien Mayfair. I
don't know if the classification of her novels is her idea or her
publishers', but instead of "Vampire Chronicles", "Lives
of the Mayfair Witches" and "New Tales of the Vampires"
(or even "New Vampire Chronicles", as some of her European
publishers seem to have determined) I suggest "Vampires and Witches".
What is remarkable about Rice is that with every new novel she stretches
our willing suspension of disbelief one step further, and still it
functions. Just about every supernatural creature ever invented in
the context of Western and Middle-Eastern myth, legend, religion,
superstition or fiction now has a part in her universe, plus a few
of her own. Her imagination is as rich as ever. Quinn is a witch who
communicates with spirits and ghosts, and as if this were not enough,
he becomes a vampire. This time, he is the narrator. The magnificent
Lestat de Lioncourt narrated many of the preceding books and Quinn
has little to envy him in this respect. But Lestat is very much present.
Indeed what transpires between the two foretells splendid developments
in future novels.
Of course, the style is still a bit contrived at times, with odd mixtures
of would-be colloquial "young" American English and overwrought
old-fashioned sentences, or simply unwelcome "heavy" lines
such as: "Of course I told him about the stranger, the stranger
in whom no one believed, apparently, and that I expected in short
order to be accused of having actually written myself the stranger's
letter to me."  Rice always makes sure to provide some "excuse"
in advance, though, as her autodiegetic narrators are often foreign,
or privately educated, or overgifted precocious children, or all of
the above. Still, when they write "yesterday" instead of
"the day before" I cannot help cringing a little. Other
sentences are slightly annoying in a story narrated by a dazzling
witch-vampire with a tremendously eventful past: "'Same as the
mausoleum outside,' I whispered. (I always talk out loud to myself
when I'm confused.)" 
In Blackwood Farm, state-of-the-art technology is more than
ever integrated, and people hilariously but credibly communicate by
e-mail with ghosts. Although I still wonder why Quinn, who owns PCs,
DVD players and fax machines does not carry a cell phone when he goes
off into the swamp by himself on a pirogue. Other comic elements abound,
notably in sentences like: "Then I realized to my horror that
my pants were still unzipped. I'd said a Hail Mary to the Virgin Mary
while officially exposing myself."  This in a very Catholic
novel (always the best context for Gothic fiction) which of course
mixes sex and religion is particularly relevant, however tautological.
Camp is not forgotten either, I am glad to say.
Blackwood Farm offers countless metafictional aspects, not
so much of the intellectual reflection-upon-the-art-of-writing variety,
but still amusing. It alludes to other Rice novels incessantly, in
a non-obtrusive way that makes the reader feel like (re)reading them
(so it cannot be bad for business). The narration, as always, functions
along the Chinese doll pattern, and Rice continues to exploit the
notion that she is only a mouthpiece or a ghost-writer (pun half-intended)
for actual vampire writers.
To conclude, Blackwood Farm shows that Anne Rice is in top
form, and its ending makes me wish I didn't have to wait another year
for the next offering (or more, if she should unwisely decide to produce
a non-vampire non-witch story before). The identification process
works better than ever, and that is of course Rice's principal quality:
the reader never wishes he were a slayer and stabbed the vampires
through the heart, he wishes he were a wealthy gorgeous immortal himself,
with a hypertrophied aesthetic sense and the world at his feet.